Premier Bookshop

An essay by Raghav Shreyas , written in 2006


Premier Bookshop has been my bookshop for the last 25 years. Ever since I had some consciousness of the world, I went there. But the earliest recollection I have of Mr. Shanbhag was when I went there with my mother and was looking for a book about cars which I was very fond of. I must have been about five or six years old and when I entered the bookshop it was empty with no one around, not even people who worked there. I asked him, while he was wiping his books, if he had a book on cars. He got a stool and reached up to the ceiling and got me a book, probably the only one he had. I pestered my mother to buy it but she flatly refused, and I was disheartened for many years to come.

The next recollection, ironically, I have of the shop was when I went to Baroda. Every time I used to come to Bangalore for vacation, I used to visit Premier Bookshop; not to buy anything but to get friendly with him. That was my main motive, and now I’ve completely succeeded in becoming very paly with him luckily more so than with other people. Every time I used to go there, I started to speak with him nonchalantly and that didn’t bother him very much. I would say, “Do you have pirated books?” He would, without batting an eyelid say, “yes, how many shall I pack for you?” That kind of talk is an everyday ritual and I usually open my conversation with him that way.

During the years, 1956 – 57, Mr. Shanbhag joined a stenographer’s course, as soon as he finished his schooling. Those were the courses those days, such as typing and stenography. But his uncle, the legendary man of Strand Bookshop in Bombay, another Mr. Shanbhag (to keep things clear here, let us call him Uncle Shanbhag), asked him (Nephew Shanbhag) to join the bookshop, provided he (Nephew S.) learnt the craft such as cleaning, book display, attending to people and sometimes even maintaining accounts. There weren’t many opportunities in his (Nephew S.’s) village, and as soon as he (Nephew… are you with us, dear reader?) finished his (guess who?) 10th grade after a year of his (Nephew) father’s death, he (*sigh*) moved out of his (!) village to pursue his studies and also to earn an income.

Presuming that you have not fainted with all the various identifiers in the previous paragraph, we continue…

In 1967 he came to Bangalore to open his uncle’s bookshop – the Strand Bookshop. For three years Nephew Shanbhag was manager of the shop, but the shop closed down without much business. It had a limited kind of stocking such as text books, dictionaries and so on. Uncle gave Mr. Shanbhag Rs. 18, 000 as soon as it closed, encouraging him to open another bookshop, to carry on another business as he saw fit.

Bangalore was cosmopolitan but the books in the city’s bookshops focused more on textbooks. But Mr. Shanbhag was married two years earlier, and had had a daughter. He had to struggle a lot.

He saw the space where he is now, thought it was fairly good, and decided to move in for the princely sum Rs. 900/-. This was previously a clothing shop that had caught fire recently and had closed down.

Premier is very small. It has all sorts of books from literature, science, arts, political philosophy, mathematics, spirituality, hobbies, history, children’s books, magazines, and self-improvement. And every time Mr. Shanbhag sees me he digs through all this books and comes up with the book I want. He might come up with similar to the one I want if not the exact one.

To describe Premier Book Shop, it’s best to quote Dr. Ramachandra Guha, the social historian, on the shop.

“Premier extends”, he says, “over a single room 25 feet-long and 15 feet-wide. In its center is a mountain of books, seven or eight layers deep, these representing the sediment of knowledge discarded or scorned by Bangalore down the years. The last layer of this mountain — the only one that is visible — showcases modern classics: Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, P.G. Wodehouse, and the like. One has to walk around the hill to view the other books on display: set in piles against the walls of the shop. As one enters one sees, first of all, the new hardbacks, these carefully chosen: not books on the soul and chicken soup but, rather, works of history and biography that Mr. Shanbhag feels will attract the more elevated among his readers.

Then one begins the ritual circumambulation of the mountain, clockwise. The wall to the left features, as one goes along, first, Indian fiction: then Indian sociology and political science; then Indian history and economics and ecology. Now it is time to walk around the mountain, to consult, on the other wall, first, children’s books; then books on nature; then works of spirituality and resting appropriately next to them, of science; and last of all, paperbacks on current affairs and military history.”

Everybody since the last 25 years has come and has continued to come to this shop. Among the many regulars are Janaki Nair, Ramachandra Guha, Girish Karnad, Tara Chandavarkar, G. K Govinda Rao, U. R. Ananta Murthy, Balan Nambiar, Sashi Deshpande, and Anitha Nair. There are many who come, but these are some authors who are regulars.

Over the years, the shop has often been in danger of being closed down and of having to make way for yet another fancy café or department store.

But so far, it has not yet fallen victim to the modernizing forces of Bangalore.

( Premier Book Shop closed down in 2009, a year after Raghav passed away.)